Search Engine Optimizer Sentenced to More than Three Years in Federal Prison for Extorting Money from a Local Merger and Acquisitions Firm
Defendant Threatened to Inflict Economic Harm
DALLAS, Texas — William Stanley, 53, a/k/a “William Laurence,” “Bill Stanley,” “William Davis,” “William Harris,” and “William L. Stanley,” was sentenced yesterday by U.S. District Judge David C. Godbey to 37 months in federal prison for attempting to extort money from a business in Dallas, announced U.S. Attorney John Parker of the Northern District of Texas. The court also ordered Stanley to pay $174,888 in restitution to a dozen identified victims of Stanley’s extortive conduct, including the Dallas-based firm, GE.
Stanley and his sister, Lynn Faust, a/k/a “Lynn Michaels,” were indicted in 2014, and Stanley pleaded guilty last month to one count of Hobbs Act – Extortion. Faust, 55, who was arrested in Sweden in May 2014, pleaded guilty in July 2015 to a Superseding Information charging one count of receiving the proceeds of extortion and aiding and abetting. She faces a maximum statutory penalty of three years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine. Her sentencing is set for February 1, 2016, before Judge Godbey.
Stanley, although a U.S. citizen, most recently resided in Romania with his wife, a Romanian national. In 2013, he traveled several times between Europe and the United States. On March 3, 2014, he was arrested on a related federal criminal complaint at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, where he arrived on a flight from Europe. He has been in custody since that time.
Faust assisted Stanley in operating his search engine optimization (SEO) company. A legitimate SEO business engages in standard practices such as optimizing the underlying HTML code on a website for certain keywords that a search engine indexer, (e.g., a web crawler for Google, Bing, etc.) would associate with a given search query. An illegitimate SEO business engages in deceptive tactics to affect search engine rankings and the volume of results. Such deceptive tactics include creating fraudulent reviews (good or bad), creating fictitious websites, or hiding text on websites.
While Stanley engaged in some legitimate SEO work, he also engaged in illegitimate and illegal SEO activities. Stanley also extorted individuals and companies by threatening to engage in the illegitimate SEO work, that being posting fraudulent comments and creating negative reviews online, if the victim did not pay him a certain sum of money.
In November 2009, GE entered into a contract with Stanley for SEO services and reputation management. Stanley was hired because of his ability to improve a firm’s online reputation through search results. After approximately one year, however, GE sought to terminate its relationship with Stanley after it determined he had acted outside of his contracted duties. Stanley also created websites that had the ability to damage GE’s reputation by associating GE with a scam. Stanley demanded additional payments to end his contractual relationship with GE and to surrender the administrator rights to the websites to GE. From November 2010 through January 2011, GE paid Stanley a total of $80,000 to terminate the relationship.
Posing as “William Davis” and “William Laurence,” Stanley transmitted threatening communications, via email and telephone, from foreign countries to GE in the Northern District of Texas. Those communications threatened to post comments on the Internet wrongfully disparaging GE’s reputation, if GE did not send money to Stanley.
Because of Stanley’s threats to harm GE’s reputation through negative Internet posts that would adversely affect GE’s ability to conduct business if it failed to send money, GE responded to the wrongful inducement by sending four payments totaling $29,556 by MoneyGram to Stanley in Brasov, Romania.
According to the factual resume, the government could readily prove that Stanley’s extortive conduct caused GE to make the above payments and to lose revenue. The extortive conduct also affected interstate commerce. In addition, the government contended that it could readily prove that Stanley engaged in similar extortionate conduct with approximately 40 to 45 victims (including GE).
The FBI investigated the case and Assistant U.S. Attorney C.S. Heath prosecuted.
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